Sunday, November 4, 2018

On the Subject of Hollywood, Public Domain Characters and Movies not Bombing.

Hey, guys!  I think it’s time to talk about movies again!

[Audible groan heard from across the internet]

Okay.  Yeah, I get it.  For a fairy tale blogger I talk about movies a lot.  But it’s hard to have a blog about fairy tales and pop culture without talking about the biggest purveyors of pop in the world.  Besides, if I didn’t talk about movies and other forms of visual media, this would basically just be another book blog.

Now, what prompted this talk about movies?  Well, it wasn’t fairy tales, it was legends.  The legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood in particular.  And it was this video by Patrick H. Willems: Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Hollywood's Problem with Public Domain Properties.
Go ahead and watch it.  I’ll wait.

Anyway, what Willems is pointing out is that for the past decade or so, adaptations of traditional characters like King Arthur and Robin Hood haven’t been all that popular.  And he points out that the way they’re being adapted and how long the gap has been between adaptations might be an issue.
And you know, he might be right.  I didn’t see either of the last two King Arthur movies or the Russell Crowe Robin Hood movie.  They just looked unappealing.  And I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint why they looked unappealing.  Now, keep in mind, as a storyteller and someone who did a 12 part series on famous legendary figures, I am probably as close to being in fandoms for Robin Hood and King Arthur as anyone is.  So, if I’m not interested, that’s a bad sign.  But here’s a thing about the recent Robin Hood and King Arthur movies: they didn’t really look all that much like Robin Hood or King Arthur movies.  At least, from the trailers and commercials I saw.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword didn’t seem to emphasize much Arthurian legend in its advertising as much as it emphasized the new gritty street tough origin they gave to Arthur.  Advertisements for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood emphasized the gritty tone and also cast in the role of Robin Hood, a character often described as “merry”, an actor known for frowning his way through most of the movies he stars in.

Overall, I think this brings up the question: “How beneficial is having a bold, radical take?”

Now, I’m not trying to say that creativity isn’t a good thing or that filmmakers should just repeat the work of others.  It’s just that for people who aren’t storytellers or fairy tale bloggers, these stories are well-known but not something they think about all the time.  So, when the chance comes to encounter these tales again, they may want to remind people of the things they loved about them in the first place.

With some radical takes, it’s even possible to just miss the point of the character in question.  Take Pan, for instance (a movie I actually did see in theaters, I regret to say).  

 It was supposed to be Warner Bros. attempt at creating an origin story for Peter Pan.  However, amid a whole number of bizarre story choices, their biggest mistake was their tired, clichéd concept for Peter.  According to Pan, Peter was a half-fairy “Chosen One” who was supposed to save Neverland.  It ignored almost all the subtext in J.M. Barrie’s story and even directly contradicted things stated about his back story.

We could actually look at Disney’s current fantasy movie initiative in regards to this.  Now, I have heard about a million explanations for why some of these movies do well.  That it’s just because of the Disney brand.  That it’s just because they’re remakes of already popular movies.  Or, in the case of the 2015 Cinderella movie, that it’s just because it came packaged with a Frozen short.  But what if those aren’t the reasons?  Let’s stick with Cinderella as an example.   

The 2015 Cinderella movie came out in 2015, naturally.  The last widely released Cinderella movie before that was a modern teen romance version entitled Another Cinderella Story in 2008 seven years before.  That movie was a sequel to another modern teen romance version A Cinderella Story in 2004.  Before that, you’d probably have to go back to 1998 and Ever After.  Mind you, this isn’t counting movies that go straight to DVD or television, which are certainly things that happen with fairy tale movies.  But when Disney’s decidedly traditional 2015 version of Cinderella came out, it ended up making 543.5 billion dollars on a 100 million dollar budget.  They made that money on a Cinderella movie that was just Cinderella.  Not “Present Day Cinderella”.  Not “Cinderella in Space”.  Not “Cinderella Warrior Princess”.  Just old-school Charles Perrault stuff.  And I remember people criticizing the film for not doing a bold new take, and explaining away its success because of branding and because it came with a Frozen short.  But maybe people were just ready for another traditional take.  Sure, fairy tale and movie bloggers who think about this stuff constantly may have been disappointed.  But regular people who haven’t thought about “Cinderella” in a long time were probably just thinking “Oh yeah, Cinderella!  I remember that!  I should take the kids to see it.”  Meanwhile, movies with less familiar takes on famous characters like Oz the Great andPowerful and Alice Through the Looking Glass underperform.

It’s not to say a different take can’t be fun.  It depends on how it’s done.  For example, going by trailers alone, this upcoming King Arthur spin-off The Kid Who Would Be King looks like a lot of fun.

It may be a silly, kid-focused take with modern school children fighting the forces of evil.  However, the trailer shows more fun, recognizable Arthurian stuff than the trailer for last year’s King Arthur movie did.  Here we see the sword in the stone, Merlin, Morgana, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake and even a tongue-in-cheek take on the famous round table.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’s trailer showed the sword in the stone and that’s it.

We’ve still got a ways to go through fairy tale and “public domain character” movies.  We’ve got a Nutcracker movie with seemingly no Mouse King up next (how many movie adaptations of Hoffmann’s story do we get?  Very few.  Would it kill us to have a definitive non-ballet take?).  And then a Robin Hood movie that looks for all the world like an episode of the CW’s Arrow.  But, the studios have long slates still in the works.  Maybe they’ll come up with some good, solid, interesting takes yet.

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